Using journals to open minds to math and more

Adult woman writing in a math journal with a pen and a coffee cup sitting on the desk

Until recently my focus while teaching math has been solely on the mathematics. Last May I was revitalized with a new added focus. Through participation in a course redesign workshop, I was forced to think about what I really want my students to gain from my class: Do I want them to know how to use the chain rule in five years? Do I want them to remember the idea of a derivative in five years? Do I want them to become a better thinker? Do I want them to learn how to interact within a group?

Because of the workshop, I made many changes to my calculus and linear algebra courses. Two of the three added goals to both Calculus and Linear Algebra are:

  1. Human Dimension: Identify areas of the learning of math they have strengths and areas that need improvement.
  2. How to Continue Learning: Develop strategies and resources for continual learning.

One common theme from the workshop was “if it’s in your learning goals, you need to assess it,” so I decided to use math journals to address these goals.

Throughout the semester I assigned five journals related to learning (as opposed to math). One of the journals posed the question, “Do you talk to think or think to talk?” and asks students to read an article about whether they like to think before contributing or do they learn by talking through a problem. The article not only helps them reflect on which type of learner they are, but also provides suggestions for when working collaboratively depending on their type . For example, a talk-to-think person might start by saying, “I’m just thinking out loud,” while a think-to-talk person might ask, “Let me think about that for a minute.” The purpose here is to expose students to the different ways people learn. Here’s an example of one student’s partial response.mymathlab-thumb-300x300

I am a member of MOSS club, and each week we go around the circle of people and we each say something that we learned that week. Before each meeting, I have to mentally prepare myself for what I’m going to say. When I’m put on the spot to think of something interesting, I blank; nothing comes to mind. I guess I didn’t learn anything this week, or so it seems. 

My takeaway message is that even though quick, rapid-fire communication is not my forte, I can always say so. Telling someone who is just spitting off ideas that I need to think about them for a while isn’t a crime. I like to carefully consider all my options before making an informed decision, and lots of other people are the same way! I am most definitely not alone, even though it feels that way when the world seems like a talking-to-think kind of place.


Since I made so many changes, I surveyed my students, and one of the questions asks, “How did math journals contribute to the course?” I was overwhelmed by the positive responses – there were no negative ones. Here are a few selected student responses:

  • I understood what kind of student I was as a result of these journals, which was something I had never really thought about before.
  • It made me realize I want my education to matter.
  • The journals helped me be more open minded to other people’s challenges. They made you think about the learning style of those around you. Then in class you really have to pick and choose between when to speak and when to listen to maximize your learning opportunity.
  • The journals made me analyze myself as a student. They didn’t have much to do with math in a sense, but I gained more of an open mind to learning about math after doing the journals.
  • They helped remind me of the importance of the course as well as keeping me focused and thinking about the future.

The feedback about the math journals has not only enhanced student learning in my class, but also in their other classes, and has strengthened my relationships with them. I know that I will assign journals in all my classes. The question now becomes, “What would you like to understand about your students?” and use journals to find out.


Dr. Palmer was one of our featured speakers at ICTCM 2016. Access more than 30 dynamic sessions by registering through the virtual track. Or if you have an idea for next year, submit a proposal.


About the Author
Katrina Palmer

Katrina Palmer, Ph.D.

Katrina Palmer, Ph.D., began at Roanoke College majoring in mathematics with secondary teacher certification. Before going to Emory for her Ph.D., she taught high school, middle school, and college while she completed her master’s degree at Appalachian State University. She completed her Ph.D. in 2004, and is currently professor of mathematics at Appalachian State University. She is particularly interested in engaging students through applications of mathematics and reflections on the learning of mathematics. Her mathematics interests lie in numerical linear algebra applied to astronomical and medical imaging.